Before working for the Center for Handicraft Research, Linkage and Development (or Craft Link), General Manager Trần Tuyết Lan worked for a tourist company in Hanoi for five years. Her work involved handiwork projects, and when she heard that a manager’s position was available with Craft Link she applied. A simple enough story, but that was 19 years ago. As we sit down to talk with her about Craft Link’s 20 years of history her confidence in the organization and the work they do shines through.
Located in Hanoi, Craft Link is “a Vietnamese not-for-profit that seeks to assist small Vietnamese craft producers to develop their businesses and find market opportunities in a changing economy.” It was born in 1996 out of a desire to provide something more for local minority artisans than the transient international NGO projects that existed at the time. Craft Link is a Fair Trade Organization, which means they abide to fair trade standards (link to their webpage) including gender payment equity, child labor prevention, and safe and healthy working conditions.
In the beginning Craft Link worked with 7 local minority groups that they had “inherited” from other NGO projects. A year in, they only had one shop, and it was becoming clear that it wouldn’t be enough to support the artisans in the sustainable manner that they desired. As a result, in 1998 Craft Link created was then known as the “development department,” and split into the two sides of the organization that still exist today. The development section, which is officially registered as an NGO in Vietnam, is responsible for carrying out training for the artisans. They provide management and design training, with the goal of bringing them from a grassroots level to a level where they can support themselves.
The other half of Craft Link is the business section, dedicated to supporting the groups who have gone through the two years of training with Craft Link’s development section. Upon graduation from the development section a local artisan group benefits from the business section’s support in finding markets for their work, education the public about their products, and financing for projects where needed. The goal of Craft Link is to make it a sustainable process, taking on new groups and graduating others. The business section is registered as a normal business in Vietnam, but functions as a non-profit because they direct all of their profit into training costs.
Trần Tuyết Lan speaks of Craft Link’s three main objectives while we listen to the bustle of one of the three Craft Link store locations below her office. Through the things they sell in their three locations, a yearly bazaar, and a lot of hard work on both sides, Craft Link hopes to revive traditional skills and cultural practices of Vietnamese traditional minority ethnic groups, help craft producers (especially the poor or disabled) improve their livelihoods, and raise public awareness about handicraft producers and their products.
“If you came here twenty years ago there were very few people [who knew] about ethnic groups in Vietnam, and we are very proud [that] in the recent twenty years we [have made] a lot of publications and documentation [that talks] about the traditions of those groups.”
Craft Link is a formally registered NGO, and therefore their funding doesn’t come from the government. However, unlike many other NGOs that On the Ground has met with Craft Link does not rely on outside sources for the majority of the finances. Instead the organization looks to their own business model for support and subsidizes their own activities. However, also unlike other NGOs we have spoken with, Craft Link does receive government support in terms of policy. The Vietnamese government has policies in place to support the poorer ethnic minority groups (often found in remote mountain areas), thereby working in tandem with Craft Link’s own goals. The government provides support to Craft Link’s artisans through several outlets including healthcare and education. This allows Craft Link to focus on their strengths in training and development, but for many of the groups which Craft Link supports there is still much work to be done before the sustainability can be achieved. One common challenge that Craft Link faces is illiteracy, a problem countered by providing literacy classes run by professionals fluent in Vietnamese.
“Every day we have challenges, every day. Because we have to support the poorest sector of the country, and you know that ethnic minority groups do not have much [of a] chance to have a high education level.”
In fact, literacy is only a part of the challenge when it comes to language. As in China, in Vietnam languages often become a challenge all in their own. As the conversation switched to the challenges Craft Link has faced in the past 20 years, linguistic struggles were highlighted as a common occurrence. Because 15% of Vietnam’s population and 47% of Craft Link’s partners belong to 53 ethnic minority groups, the groups that Craft Link seeks to aid often have their own local dialects which can differ vastly from Vietnamese.
The groups have a difficult time getting out of their remote communities, leading to challenges like language barriers that require time and patience for the Craft Link staff to overcome. In addition to language, transportation is often also a challenge in reaching certain groups. Traveling from city centers like Hanoi, it can take up to two days to reach a single location.
“Normally they live in their own community so they’re not too welcoming to outside people.”
For two years the development section of Craft Link works with a single village or area to develop a sustainable artisan community in the area. Local attitudes towards this kind of work can vary. One group, referred to Craft Link by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, was contacted by Craft Link because they believed their efforts could help sustain the local economy through artisan work. The group was losing their tradition of embroidery and handiwork, but refused aid even though Craft Link had completed a project with another ethnic group nearby. The attitude held was one of acknowledgement but resignation. “Okay we are poor, but we think it is fine. Why would we have to work on a project?” In response to this Craft Link left the village, but sent 20 local workers to talk to the nearby group of artisans who had worked with Craft Link in the past. The next day Craft Link received a call, “Now we need your help.”
The income of the artisans is growing, as is their ability to sustain that income on their own. At the Craft Link Bazaar artisans utilize the business training they’ve been provided with in order to market and sell their own wares. In this way they are weaned off being dependent on the Craft Link stores for income and are able to earn money on their own.
“We help women because they need the help more than men.”
It is interesting to note that 85% of Craft Link’s artisans are women. Though improvements have been made in terms of gender equality in Vietnam, according to the World Bank women still lag behind in terms of political and economic leadership. As a result, women are often in need of more support to achieve a level of economic sustainability. Craft Link works to counter this imbalance, often working through the Women’s Union in Vietnam, an organization that has a female representative in every level of government in the country. They work to protect the rights of and raise a voice for the women of Vietnam who have historically suffered from under-representation.
“We see that the women are empowered, and that’s the thing we are most proud of.”
As of today Craft Link is supporting 70 different artisan groups all over Vietnam and reaching over 6000 beneficiaries, in which “47% are ethnic minorities, 17% are disadvantaged groups, and 36% are traditional villages.” They are by all accounts a very successful organization, yet Craft Link is quick to direct the success of the organization away from themselves and back to the artisans they work with. Groups who may have never left their village for their whole life are now able to go to other cities, market their products, and talk about their culture. They’re empowered socially and economically. They can earn cash and sustain their business through buying supplies for their handiwork projects, and they can also afford a higher standard of living and afford to pay for further education for their children.
Cultural revival is also seen as a very important success for Craft Link. Through their work they help ethnic minority groups revive traditions and share them not only with the rest of Vietnam but also with the rest of the world. After twenty years, the success of Craft Link is obvious, and it seems that work will continue to expand. As Trần Tuyết Lan jokes on our way out, “We’re actually already in need of more space!
_________________________________________________________________ Interested in becoming “a link” in the Craft Link Chain?
Check out their website here! The best way Craft Link recommends getting involved is purchasing handicraft products through their shops, bazaars, or distribution channels. Craft Link also partners with Ten Thousand Villages, a US-based Fair Trade Organization shop, where you can volunteer or purchase handicraft products.
Other ways to get involved include volunteering to assist at a bazaar or shop, and simply spreading the word about Fair Trade and Craft Link by sharing this article or the Craft Link website!
(Author: Ida Knox, Editor: Dylan Kolhoff)